WESTMINSTER >> Holiday cheer, time with family, skiing and other winter sports, a nice cup of hot cocoa. These are a few of the things many of us look forward to each winter. But to so many of our neighbors, winter is associated with things like never feeling warm enough, sickness, and constant worry about how to pay for their next fuel delivery. Thanks to Southeastern Vermont Community Action's Crisis Fuel Program, Windham and Windsor County households that find themselves facing a home heating crisis this winter have somewhere to turn.
"We're here to help," said Pat Burke, Director of SEVCA's Family Services Program. "Anyone facing a heating emergency should contact us. We would also urge people who generally have difficulty paying their heating bills to apply for the Seasonal Fuel program as soon as possible, especially since most households need to receive Seasonal Fuel assistance before they are eligible for the Crisis Fuel program."
To be eligible for Crisis Fuel assistance, households must have had extenuating circumstances that led to the heating emergency and income at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, which is based on household size (e.g., $4,042/month (gross) for a family of four). Two years ago the state introduced the provision that income-eligible households must first apply for and receive Seasonal Fuel assistance before they can be considered for Crisis Fuel. Income eligibility is tighter for Seasonal Fuel — limits are set at 185 percent of FPL instead of 200 percent, so households between 185 percent and 200 percent FPL are eligible for Crisis Fuel without having to apply for Seasonal Fuel assistance.
Generally, only one Crisis Fuel assist is provided per household, per year. However, for the past two winters, the state had to find extra money for a "Special Warmth Fund" because there were simply too many people at risk of being without heat. Even so, the number of Crisis Fuel assists SEVCA was able to provide last winter dropped 27 percent from the previous year because of reduced funding and tighter restrictions, and we were only able to help around 65 percent of the households that applied. To help bridge the gap between what is covered by the state's Crisis Fuel program and what is needed by a particular family in crisis, SEVCA raises money through grants and donations. To help keep low-income families warm this winter, individuals may donate to our "Share the Warmth" fund online at http://www.sevca.org/share-the-warmth. Checks may also be sent to 91 Buck Drive, Westminster, VT 05158.
Crisis Fuel Assistance is available from Nov. 30 to sometime in April. To apply, call SEVCA at 800-464-9951 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday to schedule an appointment. Applicants must bring paystubs or other proof of income, know how much fuel is left in their tank (if oil heat), and provide information about their fuel dealer. SEVCA can also help homeowners whose furnaces stop working or are unsafe by arranging an emergency furnace repair or replacement. To apply for Seasonal Fuel, apply online at www.mybenefits.vt.gov or call 800-479-6151. This is also the number to call for Crisis Fuel Assistance on weekends and holidays, and for furnace repair or replacement assistance on weekends, holidays, or for after-hours emergencies.
"Don't wait until you run out of fuel," said Burke. "We try to see people as soon as possible, but it could take a few days, and we don't want people to be in stuck with no heat at all."
The program also can't pay for an off-route delivery charge, which can be very expensive.